April 07, 2020

Books dip into ghastly detail of things that go bump in the night

You don’t have to travel to Transylvania to freak out on Halloween.

As author Holly Mascott Nadler tells us, “In all the country, New England holds the richest repositories of stories of the supernatural. And why not? The region has all the elements of a ghost factory. First, you take a foundation of native American culture trampled underfoot, its burial grounds shoved aside for Colonial farms, townships and homes.

“Too many authentic hauntings have originated over the site of a desecrated cemetery… to overlook this vital connection,” Nadler said in “Ghosts of Boston Town” (Down East Books, $11.95).

Nadler advises that if your door lock starts screaming at you and your cat won’t come into your new house, don’t unpack. Not bad advice.

Greg and Claire (would you give your last name?) ignored those obvious signs when they moved onto classy Hampshire Street in Cambridge, Mass. Their friendly cat took one peek at the new digs and shot out the door for a three-day vacation. A week later, Greg stuck the key in the lock and got a loud scream. It was a “high pitched female [sound], seeming to gush out of the lock as if the door itself were outraged that we’d try to enter,” Claire told the author.

Only when the closet started screaming, did Claire finally get the hint, took a cab to South Station to get a bus to her mother’s house. The couple moved out a few days later.

If there is one thing I hate, it’s a screaming closet.

You have to watch out for the obvious signs, Nadler advises.

Lucia and Meryl Carruthers ignored the bowls of holy water, spread around the floor when they moved into their newly purchased three-decker in Boston’s Back Bay. It wasn’t the closets that turned on the Wisconsin sisters, it was the floor that started moaning a few weeks later. “It was as if we were in our living room, surrounded by an invisible circle of wolves,” Meryl said.

They got the message. They may not have been Catholics, but they went out and got all the holy water they could carry. It worked. The floors went back to minor creaking.

If you have read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of the Amontillado” you will remember that it involved bricking up a miscreant in the cellar and leaving him to die in suffocated agony. Well, Nadler discovered in her research that young Mr. Poe once served in the Army on Boston Harbor’s Castle Island in 1827. There in 1817, a fort bully named Captain Green killed a popular officer in a duel. The soldiers got Green roaring drunk, took him to the brig and chained him to the wall. They worked through the night to add a new wall to the cell.

Green was marked as a deserter until 1905 when a work crew did a little remodeling and found a skeleton behind a brick wall, dressed in the remnants of an 1812 army uniform, still bound by manacles, hands and feet.

Now where do you suppose Poe got the idea for that short story?

Rick and Claudia O’Brien lived on Tileston Street in Bean Town’s famed North End. One morning at 3:18 a.m. the lights flashed on and the smoke alarms went off. The following morning Rick learned that his mother had died at her nursing home – at 3:18 a.m.

My personal favorite is the Banshee story. The Irish (God love them) believe that some families get their personal banshee to warn them of impending death by theatric moaning and keening. A wealthy (unidentified) Boston businessman told Nadler that he first heard his personal banshee when he was 10. He heard a god-awful noise and ran downstairs to tell his parents. But his parents were too preoccupied with their own news: The boy’s grandfather had died a few minutes earlier.

The banshee returned like an air raid siren in 1946 when the businessman was away in the service. A few hours later, he got the call. His father had died. The last time the ungodly noise visited him was during a trip to Toronto. His hotel room was filled with moans, then screams. Hurried phone calls determined that the family was alive and well. When he relaxed and went down to the lobby, he heard the excited conversation. President John F. Kennedy, a boyhood friend, had been shot in Dallas.

Bostonian Jim Mackey credited a friendly ghost for ending a marriage just in time, during the honeymoon. Our boy Jim moved into a charming apartment on Pinckney Street. He should have known on the first night when a cold breeze blew across his face, although all the windows were closed. (After reading these books, I have learned one thing: When you feel a “cold spot” or an unexplained cold breeze, call U-Haul. Pack it up.)

Then the closet started moaning. When he woke up in the morning, his dirty dishes were washed and dried. (I could use a ghost like this.) He learned that Abby, a previous tenant, had killed herself in the apartment after a tragic love affair. Jim was convinced Abby had developed a crush on him.


When Jimbo fell in love he brought his new beauty back to Pinckney Street. When she suggested moving in, the apartment’s iron door slammed shut, all by itself. When he ignored the ghost’s apparent warnings and married the woman anyway, the new bride started screaming at him so much that the marriage was annulled within a few days. Jim is convinced that Abby, his friendly ghost, slammed the door and somehow forced the bride to reveal her true, carping character.

Some guys have all the luck.

Nadler also documents the haunting of Boston’s Athenaeum, Huntington Theater and the former dorm of Emerson College.

But at least Boston has a few hundred thousand residents to share its ghosts. Nadler started her haunting book series on Martha’s Vineyard, which must have the highest ghost quotient in the country.

It’s a wonder anyone lives there.

In “Haunted Island” (Down East Books, $12.95) Nadler reports that some people on Chappaquiddick (They call it “Chappy”) attribute Sen. Ted Kennedy’s fatal accident to ghosts. In 1904, “Chappy” farmer Charles M. Pease came home with a beautiful young bride. Only four days later, Pease was found dead from a rifle shot. Some say that farmer Pease still stalks the Chappaquiddick roads, even that infamous bridge.

“Chappaquiddick is a spiritual haven” according to occult specialist Nelson Ross. “Nowhere else will you find such a high concentration of ectoplasmic activity.”

If “The Vineyard” is spooky, neighbor Nantucket is just as bad, according to Blue Balliett and “Nantucket Ghosts, 44 True Accounts.” (Down East Books, $16.95)

Balliett interviewed a janitor, electrician, museum curator, architects, carpenter, writer, marine biologist, chef, nurse, jeweler, guest house owners, taxi drivers and real estate agency from age 7 to 93 for her tales of things that go bump (or worse) in the night.

According to the late Arthur Twitchell, former president of the American Society for Psychical Research, the apparition process is possibly facilitated by the constant presence of water in the ground and atmosphere. The island aquifer sits very close to the ground and Nantucket’s fogs are notorious. Coastal areas in Great Britain that are similar in climate and terrain to Nantucket, also have “a bumper crop of phantoms and hobgoblins,” Twitchell said.

Much like the Maine coast.

Trick or treat, baby.

Emmet Meara can be reached at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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